Foreclosure activity continued to drop in January, led by dramatic changes in the state that once led the nation in foreclosures. A new law in California, the "Homeowner Bill of Rights," makes it much harder and potentially more costly for banks to foreclose; hence they are suddenly finding alternatives.
"The new law imposes fines of up to $7,500 per loan for filing of multiple unverified foreclosure documents. As a result, the downward foreclosure trend in California accelerated into hyper speed in January, decisively shifting the balance of power when it comes to the nation's foreclosure activity," said RealtyTrac's Daren Blomquist.
(Read More: Fewer Borrowers Are Behind on Mortgages, but for How Long? )
Foreclosure activity fell 28 percent from a year ago nationally, according to a new report from RealtyTrac, but in California, they were down nearly 40 percent. More telling is foreclosure starts, the first notice of a foreclosure filling. In California they fell 62 percent from December and 75 percent from a year ago. The new law went into effect January 1st, 2013.
"I do think some of these delinquent properties will still end up as foreclosures down the road," notes Blomquist. "But this type of legislation is also forcing lenders to consider other creative ways of disposing of the delinquencies that may not be as difficult as foreclosure has become."
That includes short sales, deeds in lieu of foreclosure and a growing trend of selling off bad loans to investors. The investors, since they are buying at a deep discount, are able to offer more drastic modifications to keep borrowers in their homes.
(Read More: Americans Are UsingTheir Houses as ATMs Again )
Short sales, when the property is sold for less than the mortgage, are becoming ever more frequent. Nearly 26 percent of Southern California home sales in January were short sales, according to DataQuick, while just 15 percent were foreclosure sales. Investor and cash buying was at or near record levels.
"A lot of today's housing demand is fueled not by spectacular job growth and soaring consumer confidence, but by super-low mortgage rates and unusually high levels of investor and cash purchases. Take away any one of those elements and it will matter," said John Walsh, DataQuick president.
With legal changes in California, Florida now has the dubious distinction of having the most properties with foreclosure filings in the nation. One in every 300 homes had a filing in January, according to RealtyTrac. That is twice the national average.
(Read More: Big Banks Told to Review Their Own Foreclosures )
States that require a judge in the foreclosure process, like Illinois and New Jersey, saw big January jumps in foreclosure auctions (sales back to the bank or to an investor), but non-judicial states saw the biggest increases in newly started foreclosures. In Nevada, where new legislation slowed the process dramatically last year, foreclosure starts were up 87 percent from a year ago.
While the numbers can be parsed in many ways, the bottom line is that while fewer borrowers are getting into trouble, an enormous backlog of distress is still moving through the foreclosure system, in some places quite quickly, and in others ever more slowly. Until the overall numbers come down to a more normal level, any speculation on overall price stability is risky at best.
(Read More: Mortgage Mess StillMires US Housing Recovery )
—By CNBC's Diana Olick; Follow her on Twitter @Diana_Olick or on Facebook at facebook.com/DianaOlickCNBC
Questions? Comments? RealtyCheck@cnbc.com